Montessori program expansion efforts in Charleston County schools run into opposition

Charleston County School Superintendent Nancy McGinley

Charleston County school leaders are looking to expand Montessori offerings across the district, but they’re running into resistance from some parents and school board members.

Charleston County options

Hursey Elementary in North Charleston offers both traditional and Montessori classes, and the school board will decide in January whether it will only offer Montessori classes in the future.

Murray-LaSaine Elementary on James Island will pilot five Montessori classrooms next fall, and it eventually will offer only Montessori instruction.

James Simons Elementary will offer Montessori classes to some students next fall. Students in second through fifth grade will continue in the traditional program until they leave. The school eventually will offer only Montessori instruction.

Other existing Montessori public schools in Charleston County include: Montessori Community School in West Ashley, East Cooper Montessori Charter School in Mount Pleasant, and Mitchell Elementary downtown. In Berkeley County, Whitesville Elementary also has a Montessori program.

The issue has consumed a chunk of the board’s time during its three most recent meetings, and it plans to talk again in January about Hursey Elementary in North Charleston and whether it should only offer Montessori classes.

The Hursey discussion comes on the heels of a lengthy debate in November about whether Murray-LaSaine Elementary on James Island should become a Montessori school. The board ultimately agreed in a 5-2 vote to pilot five Montessori classes at the school in the fall of 2013. The school eventually will phase out its traditional classes so all instruction is Montessori.

“We heard loud and clear the desire for a Montessori program,” said Schools Superintendent Nancy McGinley. “We need another option on James Island, and we think that this is one that certainly will be supported.”

Montessori education is a teaching philosophy that encourages students to work independently, and teachers to do more individual, hands-on instruction rather than group lessons.

It’s a relatively new concept for public schools, but most every Charleston school with a Montessori program has a waiting list. District leaders see Montessori programs as another way to revitalize struggling schools and attract new families to them.

McGinley’s goal is to create the same choice options in each of four geographic areas of the district. That means giving schools a focus on a specific area, such as Montessori, arts-infusion or academic rigor.

In North Charleston, Hursey Elementary offers both Montessori and traditional classes, but district leaders have said that’s a difficult, if not impossible, model to maintain over time. Some of the challenges include cost, space, scheduling conflicts and a divided school culture.

Russell Patterson has a daughter in the Montessori program at Hursey Elementary and is a part of the Neighborhood Planning Team that has recommended the school only offer Montessori classes. He said he understood some don’t want to see the change happen, but it could help improve the school and increase parent involvement.

“North Charleston deserves equality in educational opportunities,” Patterson said.

“This issue is not about Montessori. This issue is about school choice, closing the achievement gap, and bringing families and children back into public education.”

Others don’t like the idea of converting the neighborhood school into a full-fledged Montessori program. Board member Chris Collins said he’s not opposed to Montessori classes, but it’s unfair to students who want a traditional classroom.

“If you don’t like it, you have to leave,” said Collins, who has children in both the traditional and Montessori programs at Hursey Elementary. “That’s not a good option.”

The same kinds of concerns arose when the board discussed Murray-LaSaine Elementary on James Island. Although all students who are zoned to attend the school are ensured a spot in the school, some questioned the fairness of “displacing” them because they would have to change schools if they don’t want Montessori classes.

Both Tom Ducker and Collins voted against putting Montessori at the James Island school.

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.

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